It isn’t easy being a DM. Whether you’re putting your players through a published adventure or a world of your own creation, there’s a lot of preparation that goes into crafting an experience that (hopefully) you party will find interesting and engaging. A lot of time is spent working on story points, working out maps, gauging the threat potential of various gribblies to make sure they’re not a cakewalk but at the same time not a guaranteed TPK. One thing that can really breathe life into your world, though, is who your characters interact with. A well-crafted NPC can become as memorable as any boss fight, and can lead to more adventures than you’d planned.
Enter the new Dossier Decks from SkeletonKey Games. Helmed by Ed Bourelle, SkeletonKey made a mark for themselves in the RPG Accessory field with their scrolls, stunning art representations of common spells used in D&D, physical props to add an extra element to your tabletop adventures. With the new Dossier Decks they’re looking to make life easier for the dear, beleaguered DM who’s in need of a little extra inspiration, or perhaps just to fill the gap when the players express an unforeseeable curiosity about that throwaway fishmonger who was never intended to be anything more than background noise.
There are four decks currently available – Commoners, Wizards, Merchants and Orcs/Goblins. Each comes with three types of cards – Appearance, Traits, and Story Hooks – and all four decks can be shuffled together to make one oversized NPC generation engine. For today’s experiment, we’ve popped open the Merchants box, and drawn one of each card at random as an example of how it all comes together.
Our NPC is the lavender-haired gnome Pobbs Willodan. A consummate host, Pobbs is borderline obsessed with ensuring his clientele are well catered to, even to go so far as insisting that their wineskins are full before they leave. Possessed of a prodigious digestive system himself, nothing upsets his own stomach, so no doubt he’s constantly on the lookout for new delicacies and unusual gastronomic experiences. From the story hooks, there’s a legend of a ghost ship whose crew can only come ashore once a year, seeking their stolen booty… and conveniently Pobbs has a chest that magically appears to hold whatever is valuable or desired by the viewer, but said treasure is incorporeal.
Alright, let’s put this all together.
As someone who insists on giving food and drink to the clientele, Pobbs likely isn’t selling food – or at least, not standard rations. He dresses to match his violet eyes, and since we’ve decided he has a taste for more exotic comestibles, his stock in trade is likely something a little higher end. Our story hook suggests that we’re somewhere coastal, and we have a treasure chest to factor in as well.
Let’s suggest that our little gnome is a goldsmith, crafting jewelry and trinkets for the well-to-do. He maintains a small storefront, behind which is a larger, private workshop. The storefront seems more of a place to entertain than to do business, but that’s part of the illusion, something he’s well familiar with as a gnome. He knows the value of an impression, and makes a point of sharing delicacies from foreign parts with his clients in an effort to sell the whole exotic merchandise angle. He spent some time at sea, a trader, which left him with a decent stockpile of just-foreign-enough wares to impress the dilletantes.
One blustery day in a foreign harbor he heard tell of a ship’s crew who had lucked into a treasure that they clearly had no idea how to profit from. Exotic cured meats, dried fungi harvested from a Myconid hatchery, preserved illithid spice cakes… With such rare treats, Pobbs would be able to connive his way into the upper echelons of the citadel, significantly upgrading his clientele. Pobbs saw his opportunity. Hiring a couple of ruffians they creeped aboard the ship and stole the chest. Unbeknownst to Pobbs, the ruffians were even rougher than the title suggests, and as Pobbs loaded the chest into his wagon and cantered away, the ruffians decided to ensure they wouldn’t be followed by slaughtering the ship’s entire crew as they slept. Well, as most of them slept. The lookout beat, bound, gagged, and threw overboard.
Pobbs travelled home and returned to his store, oblivious to the horror that had befallen the now-deceased crew. Before he could unload, the bailiff was pounding on his door to collect owed taxes. Pobbs managed to fob the bailiff off for a couple of days in order to give him time to collect what was owed. Clearly distressed, he returned to the chest but when he opened it to admire his spoils, he found the chest filled with coin. Confused, he reached in, and his hand passed through the small pile of gold. Being something of an illusionist himself, Pobbs immediately realized that he’d stolen nothing at all, that the preserved illithid spice cakes were a lie.
Time passed, and Pobbs continued his business, pushing the whole matter from his mind, the magical chest kept tucked away the only reminder of his underhanded attempt to elevate his status.
Now, years later, rumors of a ghost ship off the coast have been heard. A smaller vessel, nothing too grand, but while it sails it leaves no wake. The crew stand stock still on the deck, staring out across the ocean, and the figurehead – a bound and gagged spectre lashed to the prow, glowing eyes scouring for any trace of their stolen treasure – steers the ship toward its destiny.
Oddly enough, tomorrow is the anniversary of the night the crew died, and the ship has been sighted less than a day’s sail away…
According to the vagaries of math, the 51 cards in the Merchants deck can yield 4913 possible combinations, and that’s assuming we don’t also mix in the Commoners, Wizards, Orcs/Goblins, or indeed all four decks. An aspiring DM (or an experienced one) can whip out an Appearance and a Traits card to make for a quick NPC on the fly, or if you’re looking to plan something a little grander, the Story Hooks can open the door to a wider experience. SkeletonKey’s Dossier Decks are a welcome addition to the DM’s arsenal in the Gdaycave. I quite enjoyed putting together the background for Pobbs Willodan, gnomish goldsmith of dubious morality about to have a very Dickensian experience. I may do more of these…